https://politics.stackexchange.com/a/34470 is too abstruse — the history and religion conflicts are too complicated. I'm seeking answers written for a 10 y.o.

Every week, I see a new article on the SNP or Nicola Sturgeon demanding a referendum to stay or leave the U.K. Why isn't Northern Ireland doing same? Deliberately I'm asking just about staying or leaving the U.K., not whether Northern Ireland will become an independent nation state or reunite with Republic of Ireland — don't hesitate to address both possibilities.

This doesn't duplicate Why isn't Northern Ireland demanding a referendum on joining Ireland, similar to the one in Scotland?, which was answered on Apr 10 2019, because the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement with 1246 pages was agreed on Dec. 26 2020.


5 Answers 5



In Scotland, the SNP wants to hold a referendum and change people's minds to their side. In ⁠Scotland we don't know who would win a referendum now. Perhaps the SNP would ⁠convince a majority to vote for independence. Perhaps the Conservative ⁠and Labour parties would win. The SNP wants a referendum because they think ⁠they might win. The other parties don't want a referendum because they fear they ⁠might lose.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the division is much deeper. The Protestant people want to remain part of the UK. We know that the Protestant people would vote to stay.

Catholic people want to leave the UK. The Catholic people would vote to leave. And just like people don't often change their religion, it is very rare for people to change their mind about leaving or not leaving the UK. And because there are more Protestant people than Catholic people, we know the outcome of the referendum.

So the parties that want to leave the UK don't want a referendum because they know they would lose. And the parties that want to stay in the UK don't need a referendum because they have nothing to gain. This means that nobody wants a referendum.

The background is that there were centuries of violence in Northern Ireland, starting in the 12th century and escalating in recent decades, culminating in The Troubles between the 1960's and 1990's. There were bombs and murders. In 1998 the main paramilitary organisations promised to give up their bombs and guns in return for the promise of self-determination. Both sides fear that a referendum now would cause a return to violence.

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    I'm aware that there are generalisations here that are not strictly true. Consider it a Lie To Children
    – James K
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 0:34
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    I’m from the US and not of Irish or British heritage but I also grew up while the troubles were ongoing. As an uninvolved American this answer is perfectly clear and as someone who at least knows a little about it, this answer is well close enough to accurate for the apparent purpose of the question.
    – Damila
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 1:03
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    I wish this answer didn't use religion as the identifier for the factions. I suppose you know this isn't very accurate but there's no reason to continue this misapprehension to the next generation. Unionism or republicanism is a deep part of some people's culture and their religion is one aspect of this.
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 9:15
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    @EricNolan religion is strongly correlated though, and helps highlight why people rarely switch position on unionism/republicanism where simply referring to the sides as unionist or republican wouldn't. The alternative: Irish & English/British would be even more controversial :p
    – Tristan
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 13:54
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    @EricNolan I do hear you, however I'm reminded of an old Joke. "I was at a pub in Belfast when two big lads came up to me and say, 'You're not from round here, are you Catholic or Protestant?' So I say, 'Well actually I'm atheist' ... 'An atheist, is it. Well, are you a Catholic atheist?'."
    – James K
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 18:21

Currently, Northern Ireland is locked in a delicate balancing act.

In the past, all views on NI's future have evoked violent reactions from opposition parties - whether that be remaining part of the union (opposed by republicans), independence (opposed by both), or joining the Republic of Ireland (opposed by unionists and loyalists).

Since the mid-to-late 1990s, NI has found a quiet balance in that its future isn't quite decided but its current situation is a bit more fluid - all parties can share power in the NI government (when they get on).

Any referendum for anything would drastically tip this balance, and the danger is that the violence would resume - no one wants to chance this, so it's a stand off with the current state of affairs being the overall winner.

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    And by "violent" we don't mean "lots of shouting", we mean "blood in the streets".
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 2:09
  • Wouldn't be a solution to just remove the kingdom from the UK? And make it a republic instead of a monarchy that is something from the past? Just no longer make birthright something important and abolish this ancient rule of bloodshed. That way republicans are happy because they are now a republic, and unionists stay within the union and are hence happy. In this sense I feel the UK queen is personally responsible for all the deaths because she refuses to resign and hence as europe we need to take action and dare her for the court for crimes against humanity.
    – paul23
    Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 15:12
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    @paul23 No. The opposing identities are British vs Irish. There isn't even a single word for 'Independent Northern Irish', I expect (I don't know, not being from NI) that that outcome would be seen by both side as the worst possible outcome. Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 17:04
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    @paul23 The system of government is kinda tangental here. There are some people in the UK that want to see the monarchy replaced with a republic, but that's not what people mean in the NI context. 'Republican' here is shorthand for "people who want to see the reunificaiton of Northern Ireland and Ireland as a single state (governed as a republic)" rather than "People who want to replace the monarchy with a republic (and happen to live in Ireland)". Commented Jan 15, 2021 at 17:14
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    @paul23 I am not someone who habitually leaps to the defence of the monarch, but suggesting that the Queen is "personally responsible for all the deaths" is the most ridiculous thing I have heard for many a long year. The Queen is about the only person capable of winning a warm reception on both sides of the Irish border. During her 2011 visit to Dublin, there were some minor scuffles between the Garda and hooligan youth - but in the main she was very well received.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 8:43

Simply because the path to a referendum is very different in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998, a statute of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, provides that Northern Ireland will remain within the United Kingdom unless a majority of the people of Northern Ireland vote to form part of a united Ireland. It specifies that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland "shall exercise the power [to hold a referendum] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland". Such referenda may not take place within seven years of each other.

In other words those wanting a so-called Border Poll need only to see a clear majority in polling before the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to give them what they want. Thus most of their energy is focused on increasing support among the population, not on making demands of the UK government.

In Scotland there is no such law or requirement to hold a referendum under any circumstances, no matter how big the majority in favour of independence is. As such the SNP must first create a mandate for such a referendum, and then apply political and legal pressure to force the UK government to consent.


On the Scottish side, it's important to remember the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence from the UK - just 2 years before the Brexit referendum.

As part of the campaign, Scots were promised that the only way to remain in the EU was to vote NO to independence; that an independent Scotland would automatically be ejected from the EU, and have to re-apply for entry with the unanimous approval of (then) 28 members.

EU members including Germany seemed neutral to positive about our chances, and even Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (despite internal politics with Catalonia) pointedly did not threaten a veto. (NOTE : indy-leaning source!) Now while I can find no explicit threat of a veto by the UK, their emphasis on the difficulties did beg the unspoken question, who else would do a thing like that?

At least partly as a result of this, Scotland voted against independence from the UK, before voting very strongly in 2016, in favour of remaining in the EU (about 62%/38% for Remain, or about six times the overall UK margin for Leave).

Well that didn't exactly work out as promised, and we are no longer in the EU, very much against Scottish wishes.

It's now clear that the best prospect for returning to the EU is via a renewed path to Independence, and a new referendum is the first step on that path, the grounds underlying the former referendum result having been completely undermined.

Meanwhile, Nicola has asked the EU to "keep the light on for us".

(As noted in a comment, it remains to be seen how smooth EU reentry will be in practice)

The highest voted answer is pretty good on Northern Ireland but it seems completely off the mark on Scotland without telling this side of the story. People's minds are very much in favour of the EU and the accepted answer appears unaware of this.

RonJohn makes the fair comment that this answer didn't actually answer the question about Northern Ireland. The Remain majority in NI was much smaller, which may partially explain why there is less outrage at the way Brexit has unfolded. In addition, the UK has made substantial (and expensive and awkward) accommodations to NI wishes, in part as required by the Good Friday Agreement.

Thus it seems reasonable for all parties in NI to (a) not rock the boat and re-open past political wounds, and (b) wait and see how well Brexit (including the open border to Eire, and any customs friction that may arise elsewhere) works out for NI in practice.

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    To be completely fair, it wasn't just the "rest of the UK" that had issues with Scotland remaining in, or immediately joining, the EU after the independence referendum (actually, I can't remember there being a veto threat from the UK, do you have a link? I had a look, but couldn't find anything about it.). Spain in particular were very cautious, due to Catalonia, and there was, depending on the source, threat of veto, or essentially slow walking the process to membership.
    – awjlogan
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 11:06
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    @awjlogan with the exception of Spain's obvious caution (the Basques would follow Catalonia) my impression was the issues were about 90% the UK, with the EU giving the impression that rejoining was mostly a matter of procedure. But you're right, I1ll have to dig out references. Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 11:46
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    The SNP needed to find an excuse for another "once in a lifetime" referendum. If it hadn't been Brexit, it would have simply been something else.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 14:18
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    @BrianDrummond - as I recall it, both sides of the referendum explicitly asked for no "ruling" from the EU, as there wasn't any developed plan of what would come next. I hadn't considered that, at the time, the rest of the UK would still have been in the EU - thought: why would Scotland have to petition to rejoin, rather than (UK - Scotland)? Personally, I think 50:50 referenda have proven themselves to be a dreadful way to decide things - Brexit is a case in point: it's the most divisive way imaginable to "decide" anything. Roll on May..!
    – awjlogan
    Commented Jan 16, 2021 at 20:35
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    The question is about NI, and I don't see a thing about it in this answer.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 17, 2021 at 8:20

Short Answer The two situations are not the same. Those who want Northern Ireland to leave the UK want it to be united with the Republic of Ireland (they don't want NI to be independent). For those in NI who want it to remain part of UK that is doubly controversial. It is one thing to find that the part of the state you live in is no longer part of that state but another thing to find it joined to another country you might be ambivalent about. Imagine that the SNP wanted to hold a referendum on Scotland leaving the UK and being united with the Republic of Ireland (quite logistically possible as Loch Lomond, for example, is as close to the Republic as it is to England) and you get some idea of the controversy

Long Answer

The SNP in Scotland wants a referendum on Scotland becoming a separate nation state. Up until 1707 Scotland was a separate nation state and it has many distinctive features such as its own legal system which although often classified as a Common Law system has significant differences from the legal systems in the rest of the British Isles.

Northern Ireland has never been been a nation state and nobody living there wants it to be. Those in NI who want NI to leave the UK do so because they want NI to join the Republic of Ireland: the very last thing they want is for NI to be independent.

Historically the whole of the island of Ireland was a nation state. in 1801 Ireland joined with Great Britain to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

In the late 19th/early 20th Century there was a campaign in Ireland for "home rule". To understand why this was involves a lot of history involving politics and religion but, just to give one example, the ancestors of many people who supported home rule fought for King James II of Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne when he was deposed from the English throne by William of Orange.

Unfortunately opinion in Ireland was split. Historically there had been migration from Scotland to the North of Ireland and a majority of those in the Northern parts (some of whom described themselves as Orangemen) wanted to remain united to Great Britain whilst the further down south you went the more people wanted to be separate from Great Britain. This resulted in the island literally being split between "Northern Ireland" (which is actually north-east rather than being the whole of the north) which remained in the UK and the remainder of Ireland which became independent. So today just under half of the population of Northern Ireland would like NI to be united with the Republic, and just over a half want NI to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The difference of opinion between the two communities in NI unfortunately led to a bloody conflict known as The Troubles but in 1998 everyone agreed the Good Friday Agreement which led to the ending of the conflict and the Peace Process.

The GFA is complicated but basically it means that both communities in NI are guaranteed "parity of esteem". Those who feel British can feel British and those who feel Irish can feel Irish and although NI is in the UK everyone gets the same practical benefits as if it was also united with the Republic.

An example of this is the relationship with the EU. The UK has left the EU and whilst there is a Free Trade Agreement there are some checks which have to be carried out when goods are moved from Great Britain to France or the Republic of Ireland (for example). But producers in NI have a special status which means they can export to Great Britain without checks and they can export to the Republic of Ireland or to France without any checks.

And everyone in NI can freely move wherever they want within the British Isles (including the Republic of Ireland) and work and vote wherever they choose to live.

To, in summary, nobody in NI wants it to be independent. Each community wants it to be united with a bigger block but nobody wants to have a big argument about it since in practice NI has all the benefits as if it was in both blocks.

  • How does Northern Ireland have the benefits of both being in the UK and Ireland? The Northern Ireland Protocol seems to put some aspects of a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. I don't think it's possible for Northern Ireland to participate fully in both places unless the UK is aligned with the EU. Otherwise there would be a hole linking the EU customs union to the UK.
    – JJJ
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 20:22
  • @JJJ The Northern Ireland Protocol does not affect exports from NI to GB.
    – Nemo
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 20:42
  • @Nemo but it does the other way, so UK goods for consumption in NI. From the BBC News article: "Inspections take place at Northern Ireland ports, and customs documents have to be filled in. This has prompted criticism that a new border has effectively been created in the Irish Sea." And unionists in NI don't seem to like it, so I would say "has all the benefits" ignores how it's perceived by some in NI.
    – JJJ
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 20:48
  • @JJJ I suppose I was skipping over the issue of the Protocol affecting GB to NI trade because it is not supposed to affect trade - Art 16 allows measures to be taken to prevent diversion of trade - but that is another matter (and the subject of another question on Politics SE).
    – Nemo
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 21:12
  • Yea, feel free to ping me in the site's main chat room if you want to discuss more. Indeed the comments here aren't meant for extended discussion. :)
    – JJJ
    Commented Nov 19, 2021 at 21:17

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